I get a lot of emails asking me where to start when it comes to buying a bottle of mezcal. Some are from people looking to dip their toes into the mezcal waters, and others are from people who already know they love mezcal but are looking for that price/value tradeoff. Also, many want to know where they can buy mezcal since it is not available at their local liquor store.
With that in mind I thought it would be useful to put together a list of brands, prices, and online liquor stores for your convenience. My book, Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! has a complete list of every brand available in the U.S. Now this list by no means contains every brand you can find (I have another post on that too), and I stopped it at $75 because we are clearly getting past the entry level at that price. I focused on the brands that are the most commonly seen PREMIUM mezcals, so admittedly it is a bit subjective (but that’s what I do). For the price comparison, I chose six online sellers that I think have a combination of wide selection and good pricing, and they also happen to be where I buy a lot of mezcal.
I generally took the entry point for each brand, which is usually the joven. In a few cases, brands have a cocktail oriented version which is even more attractively priced and I included those as well. But if a brand has a reposado or other expressions for under $75, I did not include those. Maybe next time. Again, the focus is the brand’s entry point.
Here are my Mezcal Starter Kit Recommendations:
Andrews Wine Cellar
Old Town Liquor
El Buho Mezcal
Del Maguey Vida
Fidencio Clasico Joven
Pierde Almas La Puritita
Don Amado Plata
Alipus San Andreas
Ilegal Mezcal Joven
Mezcal Vago Espadin
Mezcales de Leyenda Oaxaca
Delirio de Oaxaca Joven
Marca Negra Espadin
Los Amantes Joven
Los Nahuales Joven
Pierde Almas Espadin
Del Maguey Chichicapa
El Silencio Joven
I enjoyed putting this together because I learned a few things as well. A few observations:
There really are not a very large number of widely dispersed good mezcals. There are only twenty names on this list – so only twenty premium mezcals can be found at at least two places online. By comparison, if you did this with tequila, I am sure you would get well into the 100s of brands. That said, there are probably another 10-20 brands that are quite good but I could only find them at one place online.
You generally get what you pay for with mezcal. The brands at the top of the list with the lowest prices are geared toward cocktail consumption. Most of them I would sip in a pinch no problem, but if I really want a sipping mezcal I am moving into the $40+ price range.
I am not deeply familiar with every brand here. I have most of these bottles, and have tried them all, but a few I have tasted only sparingly.
There are some brands in the $30-$50 range which you will not find here even though they are readily available – names like Wild Shot and Zignum come readily to mind. They are not here because I don’t recommend them.
You also will not find cheaper brands like Monte Alban and Oro de Oaxaca here because I would not drink those either. If you are not willing to spend at least $30, you are not going to get a very good mezcal. If you have a different opinion, let me know!
A few brand specific comments:
Of the first five names on the list, I would give Wahaka Espadin the best marks for versatility because it works great in cocktails, but I also find it to be the best sipper of the five.
For another $10 or so Don Amado has a “Rustico”, which is an espadin joven and far better than their plata. I would spend the extra $10.
Alipus has four different versions – I think San Andreas is the best, and they are generally all priced the same. Last fall they came out with their Santa Ana Del Rio, and I was not very fond of it on one tasting.
Scorpion is a fine spirit but it lacks the smokiness that I love in mezcal as it is produced in above ground ovens. Still artisanally made, but a different taste profile if you like a smoky mezcal.
Ilegal is an excellent introductory mezcal as the smoke, while strongly present to the uninitiated mezcal drinker, is less pronounced than most other brands so it is more approachable.
Vago made a splash as a new brand in 2013 by bringing in excellent quality mezcals. They also have an “Elote” which has a roasted corn infusion for a few dollars more than the espadin. I cannot quite get the sweetness of the corn on my palate but it is a great mezcal.
Delirio is relatively unknown to me as I have only tried it once and it made an uninspiring impression. Admittedly, it needs more investigation. They are a west coast brand and I have never seen them in NYC.
Los Amantes is triple distilled so a very soft mezcal. This can be appealing to mezcal newbies.
Pierde Almas Espadin, while expensive, is worth every penny.
El Silencio, another 2013 newcomer, is pricey but also very good – it is an ensemble of three agaves (it does not say which on the bottle but I seem to recall espadin, tobasiche, and mexicano).
Of these online sellers, I use them all regularly depending on what I am buying. Andrews is great if you are buying many bottles because shipping is free with orders over $250.
So that’s it for now. I have been a bit quiet on the blog in recent months as I have been pouring my energy into a book. This is perhaps the first official mention of it (though I promise you will be bombarded in the future!). The book is “Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! The Complete Guide from Agave to Zapotec”. I wrote it because I believe mezcal needs this book. It will be out in the next few months, and I am pretty sure it will not be a waste of your hard earned dollars. Until then, drink mezcal!
I have been wanting to write this post for awhile as a follow up to my Zignum post, but have been slow to get to it. My friends at Mezcalistas recently put up an excellent piece that touches on many economic issues that need to be addressed by the multitude of stakeholders in the mezcal world. Continuing the sustainability theme, I want to highlight the few examples I know of where brands and producers are taking positive steps on the sustainability of the important natural resources that go into mezcal: primarily agave, wood and water.
The most significant issue is the sustainability of the agave population. As has been discussed by many, agaves take anywhere from eight to thirty years to reach maturity. Agave espadin, the predominant agave used to make mezcal, matures in eight to twelve years. Obviously, this is unlike other agricultural products used to make spirits which can be planted, grown and harvested within a year – think grapes, wheat, rye, barley, potatoes, and sugarcane to name a few.
Agave does not have it this good, and therein lies a large problem. Crop management is paramount. I will update this post if I hear from other brands about some of the things they may be doing around this theme of sustainability. Here are a few that I am aware of:
Pierde Almas. In 2013, founder Jonathan Barbieri and a resolute group of about 20 others, planted over 1,000 baby tobalas in the mountains outside San Baltazar Chichicapan. This is a fantastic reforestation effort as tobalas are rare and do not produce much mezcal per plant as they are quite small even at maturity. I have heard it is an annual event, but I am not sure how many times they have done this so far. Jonathan?
Agaves Silvestres (yes, “Agaves” is meant to be plural). This is a project started by the guys from Wahaka Mezcal. They purchased land in Oaxaca to start a nursery for madrecuixe and tobala. Then they partnered with the local schools to foster an “Adopt an Agave” program. Each child adopts an agave, replants it in the wild when the agave is 3-4 years old, then Wahaka pays market prices for the agaves at maturity. The funds go to buy books and supplies for the local schools. Great idea!
El Buho. I had a long discussion with John Henry, passionate founder of the brand. He is deeply concerned with rumors that Oaxacan agave espadins are routinely transported out of Oaxaca to Jalisco for tequila production. If true, he feels stopping this is mission number one for today. The question is how do you stop it? There is no immediate answer. On the overall topic of sustainability, he views mezcal a bit like the wine business: each vintage has limited production and when you have no more agave, you stop. This focuses on estate grown agave and not the wide sourcing of agave from wherever you can get it. El Buho grows their own and does buy from other growers, but endeavors to build long-term relationships with any supplier they use and plan for appropriate crop management.
Don Amado. They are one of the oldest brands around having in started in 1994, and their producer has been practicing and teaching agave management for years – including crop replacement, soil care and harvesting. Also, they have built a state-of-the-art water purification system to treat and recycle waste water from mezcal production. Finally, they only utilize “fallen” trees for their wood – no chopping down of live trees.
El Jolgorio. They only work with small producers who use wild agaves. The producers will not harvest more than what is available and ready. As a result, El Jolgorio production will be relatively small per expression – they have eight unique varietals (see my prior post for more), and they are OK with that. So am I! Produce what you reasonably can and no more – good plan.
So that is my starter kit of what a handful of brands and producers are currently doing. I am certain than many others have projects or procedures in place to help the sustainability cause.
If you are a brand owner or producer and want to contribute to this list, please email me at email@example.com. In the meantime, drink mezcal!!
When most people taste mezcal, the immediate response is “it’s smoky”, and that would certainly be correct. Some more than others, but smoky nevertheless. But as you get into mezcal, and spend more time with it, you start to find that there is a lot more subtlety and complexity beneath that smoky front. With the help of my friend Ivan Saldana, we are going to get in deeper.
As an aside, there is a saying in the mezcal world that goes…”mezcal is an acquired taste, but a taste worth acquiring.” I believe this is primarily said because of the smokiness. But interestingly, I am finding that this seems to be less and less accurate. I have introduced mezcal to MANY people, and really, it is only about 1 or 2 people out of every 10 that don’t like it on the first sip. So I don’t know if palates are changing and people have become more accustomed to unique spirits, but I increasingly find that most people like mezcal right out of the gate. (more…)
There is a debate going around in the mezcal community (yes, there is a community for pretty much everything – are you a member of the A-Rod’s Homeopathic Treatments Club?) about what the definition is of Traditional Mezcal. I think I know where this started, and I am certain it will not end here, but I wanted to throw my hat in the ring on this debate.
For the most part, I think this whole debate is a problem of nomenclature. The nomenclature part is simple: as soon as you say one thing is “traditional”, that means everything else is not. The problem is that many news outlets, websites, and blogs picked up a recent piece of literature on traditional mezcal, and they are publishing it as gospel. I think there is more to the story. Let’s see if we can sort it out. (more…)
Recently, I put up a post on why mezcal is happening now. I started thinking about this again (well, OK, I am always thinking about this) as I saw yet another article where they described the recent popularity of mezcal as “Mezcal’s Moment.” And I realized that this drives me crazy! Just Google “Mezcal’s Moment” and see how many misguided articles pop up!
“Mezcal’s Moment” aggravates me. Bothers me. Annoys me. It’s not gross like the guy I recently saw clipping his nails on the subway, but just simply wrong. You may ask why I am up in arms over this when this whole blog is about celebrating mezcal?? Well, it is because “a moment” suggests a temporary condition. Mezcal is not a temporary condition! (more…)
Like many of my posts, I try to hit upon themes that I hear about all the time from friends, family and people I meet. If I had a bottle of mezcal for every time I am asked “What is mezcal?”, I would have quite a collection. And I have quite a collection – see what I mean?
What is mezcal? Why is everyone talking about it? (well, maybe not everyone – just everyone who knows ANYTHING about ANYTHING!). Mezcal is any spirit that is distilled from an agave – though not everyone can label it as such as you will see below. So tequila is a mezcal, for example, because it is made from the blue agave. What distinguishes mezcal is where it is made in Mexico, the production process, and the types of agaves used. I go into depth on this topic in a variety of previous posts so check out THIS ONE from last August if you want more on this.
Now on to what I really want to write about in this piece: Why Is Mezcal Happening Now? There is not an obvious answer, and for that reason, I wanted to explore the topic. So let’s start with a bit of background.
I live in NYC and have been a passionate premium tequila lover for close to 20yrs. As the premium tequilas (and I am not talking about the only-margarita-worthy Patron)really began to come to market in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, I began to get deeper into great tequilas. Then when my wife dubbed me a “tequila collector” I felt I had license to really go nuts, and the bottles really began to pile up!
But mezcal in the late 90’s and first half of the 00’s? It barely existed. I would dabble (and I loved it) when I saw a bottle of Del Maguey, but that was rare. I am talking really rare. Rarer than the NY Post front page without Lindsay Lohan and a bottle of Jack. .
There was a night a few years ago when I decided to have my own very private mezcal tasting. I had collected a few very nice bottles at that point and wanted to try them side by side to compare, contrast, and enjoy. But by myself? Sure. Why not? Just me and my booze. But my wife was worried about me, my parents called, neighbors knocked, the dog barked (imagine my shock since I don’t have one). They thought I was going over the edge (the edge of glory perhaps!). But it was alright. I had a great time and learned a few things along the way.
Here we go. Strap on your agave nerd hat! I have been working on this new piece for months. I put up my first post on this topic in May, but I have learned more since then and this list is better. Perfect? No. But better. You see, it is a difficult topic to tackle. Let’s start with the mezcal regulators.
Mezcal had its first modernized set of government regulations, called NORMA in 1994. A new NORMA was drawn up for mezcal in 1997 and revised in 2005. Under the new laws, all mezcal production must be certified in order to sell or export it. The NORMA lists only 5of the common varieties of agave from which mezcal can be made, such as espadin and tobala.(more…)
COMERCAM, which is the government entity in Mexico that regulates mezcal production and certification, publishes a limited set of data on the mezcal market every year. The information comes with a bit of a time delay. For example, the 2011 data was just published at the end of 2012. This is clearly not ideal as the market is experiencing fairly rapid growth. So while 2011 data is interesting, I suspect that 2012 saw substantial growth in mezcal exports, and therefore just having 2011 data leaves me a bit wanting. (more…)
Recently, a VERY knowledgeable mezcal market participant hypothesized the following theory: all of the variations and multiple products being pushed out by individual brands is confusing to the average mezcal consumer and potential mezcal consumers. This person felt there were too many tobalas, pechugas, madrecuixes, etc, and that the overwhelming number of choices led to no choice being made. It’s like all those great Taylor Swift songs: how can you choose which one to listen too?
Could all the mezcal choices lead to drinker inaction? Let’s start by looking at tequila. With tequila, there are more than 1,000 brands, but virtually every one of them has the same three products: silver, reposado, and anejo. And it is all blue agave by definition. Simple. These 3 expressions are readily understood by most tequila consumers, and even if they do not know this, people are rarely confused. You walk into a bar, you see tequila behind the bar, and at most, you see 3 bottles of the same brand, but even that is not at every bar. (more…)